Fireside this week! We actually haven’t had one of these in quite a while; we had a gap week in April but the last Fireside looks like it was in March! In any case, here we are and here’s Ollie:
For this week’s musing, I want to muse on the impact of the ‘long peace‘ on modern military capabilities. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the ‘long peace’ is a term we apply to the period since WWII which has had a low and indeed falling level of war, both inter-state and intra-state. Normally, when I say this is something that has happened, I find I encounter a great deal of incredulity among the general public. Surely they can list off any number of wars or other violent conflicts that happened recently. But the data here is actually quite strong (and we all know my attitude towards certainty on points of real uncertainty; this is not one of them) – violence has been falling worldwide for nearly 80 years, the fall has been dramatic and relatively consistent. It could end tomorrow, but it didn’t end yesterday. What I think leads to the misconception that there is no long peace is that this has also been a period of rising connectivity and information movement: wars are both fewer and smaller, but you hear about more of them.
I’ve discussed this before a few times, but I think Azar Gat is probably right to suggest that the long peace is itself a consequence of the changing incentives created by the industrial revolution and to an even greater extent, by nuclear weapons. Prior to the industrial revolution, war was the best way to get rich (if you won) because land and conquered subjects were so much more valuable than any kind of capital investment (infrastructure, manufacture, tools, etc.) that could have been developed with the same resources. The industrial revolution changes this, both by making war a lot more destructive (thus lowering returns to successful warfare)1 while at the same time massively raising returns to capital investment in things like infrastructure, factories and tractors. It suddenly made more sense, if you coveted your neighbors resources, to build more factories and buy those resources than to try to seize them by force. Nuclear weapons in turn took this same effect and ratcheted it up even further, by effectively making the cost of total war infinite.
I should note I find this version of the argument, based on incentives and interests more compelling than Steven Pinker’s version of the argument based on changing cultural mores. If anything, I think cultural values have lagged, resulting in countries launching counter-productive wars out of cultural inertia (because it’s ‘the doing thing’ or valued in the culture) long after such wars became maladaptive. Indeed, I’d argue that’s exactly what Russia is doing right now.
All of that is background for a thought I had discussing with some colleagues the dismal performance of the Russian army. We have all noticed that the Russian military appears far less capable than we thought it was; frankly it seems incapable of even some of the very basic tasks of modern industrial armies engaged in conventional military operations. Shockingly, it is a lot less capable of these things than older armies of yesteryear with much more limited technology. It’s not hard to imagine that even without all of the advanced technology, that by sheer mass and dint of high explosives (and basic logistical competence) that a capable mid-20th century army might well perform better than the Russian army has.
Yet the odd thought I had was this: what if Russian incompetence isn’t exceptional, but in fact the new normal in warfare? What is – quietly, because they haven’t tried to launch a major invasion recently – most militaries are probably similarly incapable of the basic tasks of industrial warfare?
Being good at war imposes a lot of costs, even if a country doesn’t go to war. Soldiers need to be recruited, trained and equipped. Equipment must be maintained and kept up to date. Officers need to be mentally agile and sharp. Experience needs to be retained and institutionalized. Capable leaders need to be promoted and incapable but politically influential leaders sidelined. The state, as we’ve discussed, emerged as an engine to do all of these things, but these are all difficult, unpleasant and expensive things. They all impose tradeoffs. An army filled with capable, educated and talented young officers is, for instance, a significant risk to regime stability, especially for non-democratic regimes. Recruiting quality means either institutionalizing conscription (politically unpopular) or raising taxes and spending a lot of money (also politically unpopular).
What kept states doing all of that was a sure knowledge that if they didn’t, the cost would be state extinction. Take a modern country like Venezuela. Venezuela is a basket-case, with catastrophic inflation combined with a moribund economy almost entirely reliant on oil exports, all atop substantial internal instability. Prior to the long peace, there’s little question what happens to a country like Venezuela, which is essentially a giant pile of barely guarded wealth: one – or several – of its neighbors would move in, oust the government and seize the territory and its valuable resources (oil, in this case). But because the leaders of a country like Venezuela know that, they may well try to avoid developing their country into such a weak state in the first place. Sure, bribery and corruption are fun, but only if you live long enough to use it; it’s not worth ruining the economy if the only consequence is being killed when Brazil, Colombia or the United States invades, disassembles your weakened and underfunded military and then annexes the country.
The reason that doesn’t happen is not because the United States, Brazil or Colombia has suddenly developed morality (the USA’s record as a neighbor to Central and South America is not one we ought generally to be proud of), but because it no longer makes economic sense to do so. The value of the oil and other resources would be less than the cost of maintaining control of the country. This is why, I’d argue, you see the proliferation of failed states globally: in the past it would be actively profitable for non-failed states to take advantage of them, but as a result of the changes in our economies, failed states instead represent a question of managing costs. States no longer ask if they can profit through a war of conquest, but rather if they’d spend less managing the disaster that a local failed state is by invading versus trying to manage the problem via aid or controlling refugee flows. Even by that calculation, invasion has generally proved a losing option.
But that has a downstream implication on what the militaries of most countries are for. In the past, militaries were necessary to deter invasion (or to profit from your own conquests). But in a world where most invasions are – or at least ought to be – self-deterring, for countries that do not have revanchist neighbors who might launch a stupid war of conquest out of pique, the bar to reach that kind of deterrence is extremely low (and of course if your potential threat is a great power like the United States or arguably China, having a military with a meaningful deterrence value might be beyond your abilities even if you focused on it. If the USA decides that a military solution is the least-bad-option regarding Venezuela (I think this would be a mistake), there isn’t much Venezuela could do about it). In that case, the traditional mission of most militaries stops being a major concern.
But then note how this impacts all of those difficult decisions a state has to make in order to retain a military capable of conventional warfare. It suddenly becomes a lot harder to justify all of those trade-offs. The threat that was keeping you ‘honest’ is greatly reduced, if not gone. Instead, the new incentive for most countries would be to build a military in a way that aims to minimize the political costs, rather than maximize combat power or even ‘security.‘ And I think that’s exactly what we see countries doing, in different ways based on their form of government.
For consolidated democracies with lots of legitimacy, which tend to be less worried about the possibility of an army filled with voters overthrowing the government, it makes sense not to build an army for conventional operations but instead with an eye towards the kinds of actions which mitigate the harm caused by failed states: armies aimed at policing actions or humanitarian operations. That also has the neat benefit of giving the country a low-cost way to ‘help out’ in an alliance system like NATO, which in turn serves to stabilize alliances with still-militarized, conventionally capable great powers, who then cover the issue of deterring a conventional war. Perun actually had a pretty good video walking through this logic.
Alternately, for low legitimacy forms of government, like autocracies, the concern is squarely centered on internal stability, and here we see a wave of armies designed primarily for ‘coup proofing.’ Russia’s military is actually a pretty good example of how this is done. An authoritarian government is looking to both maximize the ability of the army to engage in repression while minimize it as a threat to its rule. ‘Coup proofing’ of this sort follows a fairly consistent basic model (which I may elaborate on at a later date). First, command needs to be divided so that no one general or minister of defense can turn the whole defense apparatus against the leader. You can see this with how the Russian armed forces were fragmented, with Rosgvardiya and Wagner Group not reporting to the ministry of defense, but it also extends to the structure of the Russian Ministry of Defense, where the Army, the Navy and the Airborne forces (the VDV) all maintain infantry forces. Setting things up that way means that, in a pinch perhaps elite, well-paid and loyal VDV forces could be used to counter-balance grumbling disloyalty in, say, the army. Of course such fragmented command is really bad if you need to launch a conventional war, as, in the event, it was.
Meanwhile, maximizing the army for repression means developing paramilitary internal police forces at scale (Rosgvardiya is an obvious example), which direct resources away from core conventional military; such security-oriented forces aren’t designed for a conventional war and perform poorly at it. The People’s Republic of China is also reported to have this problem: internal security and repression absorb a lot of their security funds. At the same time, if the purpose of a military is internal repression, that means the loyalty of that army – or at least its officers and elite units – is the priority. As anyone who has ever run any kind of organization knows, making people happy and making the organization run efficiently are rarely fully compatible goals. Getting a military ready for a real fight invariably involves a lot of unpleasant tasks (or expensive ones) that soldiers might rather just not do (or might rather just embezzle the resources for), and if the goal is regime stability, it makes sense to let them not do them (or embezzle the resources). Meanwhile, the state is promoting not for capability, but for loyalty, which is why a blockhead like Valery Gerasimov might still be in command 15 months into a war in which his leadership has been astoundingly poor.2
All of which is to say, the brutal do-or-die demands (or in fancy speak, ‘the pressures of interstate anarchy’) which once forced most states to at least try to maintain competitive, conventionally capable militaries are fading because modern weapons and modern economies have changed the balance of incentives. Consequently, I suspect Russia is not the only paper tiger out there; the forest is likely to be full of them. Indeed, the exceptions are likely to be the handful of countries which still do feel the need to maintain competitive, conventionally capable armies either because they feel they have real security threats from revanchist powers (Israel, Taiwan, Poland, Finland, Ukraine, etc.) or because they form the backbone of an international system which requires that someone carry a big stick (the United States). Of course the big unanswered and at the moment unanswerable question is where countries like India or the People’s Republic of China fit. Are their militaries remaining sharp in preparation for possible great power conflicts or are they too letting the edge dull?
I sincerely hope we never find out. A world whose tanks are filled with cobwebs, where it makes little sense for most countries to focus massive resources on their militaries is a happier world. But I fear it is not yet the world we live in.
On to Recommendations!
First off, our valiant narrator has been at it; with so few Firesides lately, I have a bit of a backlog of his updates (and likewise a backlog in adding links to the relevant posts). In particular, he’s added the series on Crusader Kings III to the Teaching Paradox playlist, as well as recording audio versions of the “One Year into the War in Ukraine” retrospective, James Baillie’s excellent discussion of digital humanities and prosopography in the medieval Caucasus and Michael Taylor’s look back at The Face of Battle. All now ripe and ready for your listening enjoyment!
As usual for those looking to keep track of the war in Ukraine, Michael Kofman’s podcast appearances over at War on the Rocks remain very valuable; his latest was on May 30th talking about the potential of Ukraine’s coming offensive and is well worth your time. At time of writing, that offensive has clearly begun, but we know relatively little about how it is proceeding this early on, except that (as functionally everyone predicted), wars result in equipment losses, even fancy western equipment. I should note Kofman also has a more in-depth podcast series, The Russia Contingency, which I think is quite good but sits behind the War on the Rocks paywall.
Speaking of things behind paywalls, there were a few good recent articles over at Foreign Policy that I think deserve a look, though those too are (I assume) behind their subscriber wall. Evan Thomas offers a defense of the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the grounds that it was the ‘least bad option.’ That is not a popular position to take amongst much of the public these days (particularly in online spaces that lean left) but I think it is valuable to engage with the arguments even if one does not agree. I’ve made this point before but the fact is the issue is a complex one and anyone offering a simple answer is wrong. Certainty that the bombs were dropped as the last bad options is unwarranted (Soviet reception was a factor), but at the same time, certainty that Japanese surrender was immanent without the bombs is also unwarranted – our visibility into Japanese decision-making in that period remains less than perfect but it seems fairly clear that the all-important IJA and IJN intended to keep fighting.
Also at Foreign policy, Derek Grossman of RAND offers something of a sanguine view of the place of American diplomacy in Oceania, particularly in the context of competition with the People’s Republic of China. Once again, I don’t think one needs to entirely take on board the argument for it to be useful. American discourse about everything, but especially on security tends to accentuate the negative to the point of doomerism when I think the position of the United States – or more correctly the ‘status quo coalition,’ an idea I’ll develop a bit more in this space in July – retains strong advantages and there are in fact a lot of reasons to see potential upsides in the future generally (not the least of which is the continued decline of warfare noted above).
On the history front, Evan Schultheis on Twitter decided to build a massive Twitter thread dumping information about all sorts of organic armors (textile and leather) in the ancient world which is worth a read. This is a topic I intend to return to at some point, but in the meantime Evan knows his business on military equipment. I suppose I would offer a one caveat; the first is that just because the sources do not require glued linen armor (which Evan is 100% correct, they do not) does not necessarily rule it out (though I think it makes it quite unlikely). On balance, I would tend to think the textile ‘tube and yoke’ cuirass was more common than leather and I’d really like to see a twined linen reconstruction which acts the way we see these act in artwork (particularly their fairly rigid structure; the ‘yoke’ over the shoulders stands almost upright when not tied down in artwork). That said, I suspect that such a reconstruction would act that way, and I think seeing it demonstrated would be enough to convince me. Evan also briefly mentions the unreliability of Raffaele D’Amato’s work; this I would like to echo. D’Amato’s arms and armor reconstructions are frequently tendentious or even just wrong and he also seems to have been involved in more than a little shady sounding things in the world of antiquities. Do not rely on D’Amato on Roman military equipment.
I also really liked this r/AskHistorians response from Roel Konijnendijk (under his nom de plume of Iphikrates) on how hard ancient soldiers might train physically and how physically fit they might have been. In particular, he pushes back on the notion that all ancient warriors were ‘ripped,’ noting that these men were generally part-time soldiers conscripted from the farming classes and that armies of part-timers like this performed fine; the Romans conquered the Mediterranean with a citizen militia (albeit one that did train its soldiers once they were in the army and where they tended to serve long(ish) stints in service). I would suggest that, probably by the Middle Republic (but the evidence is hardly secure) the Romans seem to be doing training for ‘skill at arms’ and some level of fitness training was also clearly part of the mix by the imperial period (and perhaps earlier), but Roman soldiers too were not ultra-jacked supermen. We actually see a lot of senior Roman centurions represented visually on gravestones and what we see are pretty regular looking men; these are idealizing portraits, but that should tell us that if there was some ideal for Roman soldiers to be ripped like body-builders or Hollywood action stars, we’d see that. In practice, a big part of the issue here, as Roel notes, is that the modern conception of the ideal male form isn’t one that performs optimally or is normally attainable.
Finally, for this week’s book recommendation, I’m going to recommend something perhaps a touch more sentimental than analytical, J.D. Hornfischer, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (2004). It would be easy, but I think wrong, to say the book was about the Battle off Samar, part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the most seemingly unlikely victories in US naval history, but I think it is more accurate to say that this is a book about the sailors who fought the Battle off Samar. Unlike previous recommendation Shattered Sword, which for all of its humanizing detail was first and foremost an analysis of the Battle of Midway, Hornfischer here is about the sailors more than the last stand of the title, though both matter a great deal.
For those unfamiliar with the Battle off Samar, the battle, taking place on October 25, 1944, was part of the much bigger Battle of Leyte Gulf; in this part of the engagement, the Japanese Center Force under the command of Takeo Kurita – an extremely powerful battle group including four battleships including the Yamato, the largest battleship ever put to sea, plus six heavy cruisers, two light and eleven destroyers – attempting to strike the American landing force instead encountered a small US escort group, Taffy 3, consisting of 6 small, slow escort carriers and 7 destroyers (four of which were actually even smaller destroyer escorts). Yamato alone displaced more mass than the entirety of Taffy 3. At the same time, the US escort carriers, which weren’t designed for this kind of fleet engagement (thus the word escort there) lacked the airpower to do serious harm to the Japanese battlegroup but also weren’t fast enough to get away either. The massive Yamato was, in fact, faster than the tiny escort carriers it was chasing. The battle is thus a desperate delaying action by the US ships present, with destroyers charging ships twenty times their size in an effort to slow down the IJN advance to buy time for help to arrive. In the end, almost preposterously, the tiny ships of Taffy 3 actually turned back Kurita’s Center Force and even more preposterously, inflicted more losses on the attacker than they sustained (though losses in Taffy 3 were heavy).
But what I find valuable and worth reading about this book – beyond Hornfischer’s writing, which is excellent, you will tear through this book – is that is focus isn’t on the battle but the men in the battle. The central question of the book is really less ‘how could such a victory be won’ so much as ‘what kind of person could win such a victory?’ Doubtless to some degree the portraits of the heroes of the day are sanded to a nice, smooth heroic finish in Hornfischer’s prose, but the portrait is still valuable because these sailors and officers were not the Best of the Best of the Best, they were not the elite of the US navy. These were, after all, relatively small, in theory unimportant ships; many of their crews were fairly new as were some of their officers. Instead the victors off Samar turn out to mostly be pretty regular fellows who, in a moment of crisis, saw what needed to be done and did it, understanding full well it might demand their lives (and in many cases did).
And the reminder that wars are not won by the efforts of the ultra-elite super-special forces that get features in Call of Duty games, but rather by the exceptional heroism of unexceptional soldiers and sailors is a good one.
- And we should note here both more destructive in the sense that casualties went up dramatically, but also more destructive in that industrialized wars are far more capable of destroying the new, infrastructure-heavy industrial methods of production. It is really quite hard for ancient or medieval armies to do meaningful long-term damage to an agricultural economy; farmers flee, crops are hard to destroy and in any case armies can’t do anything to the land itself. Even a sustained collapse might mean something like only a 25% reduction in total production; by contrast Liberia lost 90% of its GDP in just six years of internal warfare from 1989 to 1995. Industrial armies can easily destroy factories, level a non-trivial percentage of a country’s housing stock, torch its electrical grid and thus greatly reduce its economic production This can happen even if the country in question wins – ask Britain or the USSR after WWII.
- It’s behind the paywall, but I recommend Michael Kofman and Dara Massicot’s absolutely withering podcast on “Gerasimov’s Failed Offensive” for what I thought was a sharp but entirely justified critique of Gerasimov’s failures.